The Holidays Are Not Always a Wonderful Time for Some Individuals


As we enter the holiday season, we find excitement and lots of activities that go beyond our normal routines.  Starting with the schedules that we see in schools and at home, changes to routine become more routine than not!  As parents, we learn to verify what the actual breaks from school are so that we know how to best prepare.  For example, when I was a student in the 1970s, we went to school the Wednesday before Thanksgiving up to the 22nd or 23rd of December before any breaks took place.  Things have changed greatly since then.  As an administrator in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw that we needed to add the Wednesday before Thanksgiving due to the lack of attendance.  We also learned that the time off at Christmas needed to be two full weeks and had to work around potential weekends.

As fun as time away from school might sound, it does create issues for individuals who crave routine.  Even within school days or therapy sessions, we may see different scheduling of classes or decorations which can draw attention and cause issues around focus.  For some individuals, this could lead to sudden escalations around things we might not have considered, like having to walk around a decorated area instead of walking through it.  

What can we do to become more aware and help to spread that awareness to others?  First, recognize that we can only control what we can control. As our individuals leave our buildings, there are other disruptions that can be problematic.  With that in mind, I recommend “Holiday Sensory Kits” for the parents and guardians.  These kits can be used throughout the year; however, I am making suggestions that will help to address the constancy of change over the next few months.  To start, have the parents consider putting this together in a backpack or drawstring bag so that it can be portable without being obvious to others. In this backpack, a pair of noise reducing earbuds or headphones will be important for many. I like the Vibes as they really do appear as earbuds, yet give that reduction in ambient noise that might be encountered outside, in malls, or in larger gatherings.  For some, those might need to be noise cancelling headphones.  

Depending upon where you live, you also want to consider sudden changes in weather.  Having a pair of gloves and a knit hat in colder regions is also a good idea.  I have even seen some groups go as far as to recommend hand warmers in their kits.  This can be a good idea, as long as the individual who might be using them understands when something is too hot as well as why something like this should be used.

The next things to have in the backpack are a range of sensory support items that are socially appropriate for situations.  The Sensory Tangle Toy is one of my go-to items for both recommending and having available for myself.  I actually have one on my office desk and will utilize it during longer virtual meetings when I cannot get up and move around. This is a good choice as it does not make noise, can be used under a table or close to the body, and is better accepted by the external community for stress relief.  I also recommend that this is not the only item one has for sensory release.  In some cases, if an individual is not prone to throwing items, a squeeze ball can also be helpful.  Again, it does not make any sound and they are socially acceptable.  I do recommend for any sensory object to have more than one in the backpack in case something gets dropped or lost.  

A small first aid kit is also something to consider in the backpack.  Why? I have had stories shared with me where individuals began to escalate in a situation and either fell or crashed into something.  Having bandages and some antiseptic is always a good call.  The First Aid To Go Mini First Aid Kit is a nice choice for this.  

Finally, we do want to look at something with a little bit of weight (2-4 lbs. max) like Theo the Therapy Dog, the Manimo Weighted Lizard, or a Washable Weighted Lap Pad, adding the dynamic of having a weight that can be placed on the lap or shoulders.  For younger individuals, animals are acceptable.  For some of our older individuals, the lap pad is a more socially acceptable choice.

Think about also having some juice boxes, a filled water bottle, and some snacks.  For some individuals, they may need to have something that they are used to eating or drinking when the situation is strange and somewhat overwhelming.  I have spoken to parents who regretted not taking simple things like a favorite juice or snack along, along with presuming a food court or refreshment stand would have something that might assist in de-escalation through food or drink.  Hot chocolate is a great treat but may not help to calm someone who has been triggered in a new environment.  

In Gabe’s Access Angle blog, he addresses some of the outer wear which may be good during these months. Having lived in the Midwest for most of my life, I always urge to take layering into account if the individual is comfortable with that.  Think about things like thermal tops and pants to go on as the base layer and then build out from there.  The nice thing about layering is that one can always remove a layer if it begins to get too warm.  Temperature and other weather conditions can play a major role in escalations as well!

Those of you who have spoken with me or read my work before know that I am big on preparing our individuals to decorations and changes in advance.  I know of some families and schools who slowly transition into the holidays with inside decorations.  One mother described the fact that they have pumpkins around the house from the beginning of October until the day after Thanksgiving for Halloween, along with fall decorations.  The day after Thanksgiving is the changeover day.  In the morning, they say goodbye to the pumpkins and put away the fall decorations while bringing out their Christmas tree.  They only set up the tree on that day to start the transition.  On Saturday, the lights go on the tree.  Then on Sunday, ornaments go on the tree, decorations come out, and the outside is decorated.  This mother stated that even with only a 24-hour gap, it is enough to assist in the transition and not create escalations.

Furthermore, be aware of the places you are traveling to.  Prepare the individuals by explaining to them what they will be seeing and experiencing.  Be ready to take things slow.  Whatever you are doing, make sure that you include the whole family.  Inclusion in all activities is so essential to overall fulfillment and happiness in our lives.  Lack of inclusion can also cause escalations.  Be aware of the focus of the individual and what they are hoping for.  I learned this the hard way one Christmas, when my son was much younger.  He and I slept on a pull-out couch in the room with the Christmas tree as he was intent on catching “Santa.” Well, “Santa” woke up at about 3:30 am, brought out the gifts, and filled his stocking.  Santa also ate the cookies which happened to be my…  I mean HIS favorites and tossed the carrots outside for the reindeer and animals to eat.  “Santa” was feeling pretty good about things until my son awoke and had one of his worst escalations ever.  He was inconsolable for almost an hour because he didn’t catch “Santa.”  Take time to understand their needs beyond what we might believe those needs to be!  He did learn soon after that the spirit of “Santa” lived on in all parents.  In the future, he was able to catch “Santa.”  It did mean that lots of noise had to be made or “Santa” had to even “accidentally” shake his bed to wake him.  

The most important thing when helping individuals is to take care of yourself first.  When you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it can take its toll and not allow us to be present in the moment.  Make sure you are engaging in self-care as well.  When we focus on ourselves and preparing our individuals for various activities and changes in routine, we can make this the most Wonderful Time of the Year!


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter